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Barbarians at the Gate

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
By Diane Ackerman
W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pages, $23.95.

In 1935, the Warsaw Zoo was an Edenic haven in the urban center. Small deer and peacocks wandered freely along gravel pathways, past lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, hippos and other creatures enclosed in areas designed to resemble natural habitats. Jan Zabinski, the director, managed a large staff, wrote scholarly books, tended beehives and daydreamed about creating the best zoo in Europe. The zookeeper’s wife, Antonia, gave tours to visitors and also nursed sick or orphaned animals alongside her son in a villa on the grounds. A “zoological cantanta hard to score” filled the air.

Less than five years later, gunfire and the sounds of missiles hitting their targets replaced the hoots and squawks. The animals were gone, dead or deported to Germany; in their enclosures the Zabinskis now stored explosives, munitions, fugitive Polish saboteurs and Jews. Even the name was different: The Warsaw Zoo, code name “House Under a Crazy Star,” had become a major base for the Polish Underground.

Drawing on journals kept by Antonia, as well as interviews and archival materials, Diane Ackerman masterfully re-creates the Zabinskis’ world as it shifted from idyllic to nightmarish, and as the couple moved from ordinary, law-abiding citizens to active members of the Resistance. But this is also a story about the relationships “between people and animals, and… between people and their animal nature,” told with Ackerman’s characteristic close attention to sensory experience.

When Antonia and Jan married in 1931, they expected to live out their days as zookeepers. Antonia in particular had a gift for working with animals: They trusted her because she seemed so able to understand the world from their perspective, “intuit[ing] their concerns and know-how, including what they might be seeing, feeling, fearing, sensing, remembering.” Ackerman attributes this ability to the comfort that Antonia took in the animal world after the murder of her parents during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Both Antonia and Jan believed that the best way to learn about animals was to really live with them, so their small house became home to a menagerie of four-legged friends, including lynxes, chimpanzees, rabbits, a housebroken badger and many types of birds.

The events of September 1, 1939, broke the spell permanently. As the Nazis invaded Poland, Antonia fled with Ryszard, her young son, to the country, while Jan joined his army reserve unit. The Blitzkrieg destroyed the zoo:

“Glass and metal shards mutilated skin, feathers, hooves, and scales indiscriminately as wounded zebras ran, ribboned with blood, terrified howler monkeys and orangutans dashed caterwauling into the trees and bushes, snakes slithered loose, and crocodiles pushed onto their toes and trotted at speed…. [P]arrots spiraled upward like Aztec gods and plummeted straight down…. Two giraffes lay dead on the ground, legs twisted, shockingly horizontal. The clotted air hurt to breath and stank of burning wood, straw, and flesh.”

After the Polish army surrendered, Jan and Antonia returned to rebuild what they could with the few surviving animals. A short time later, they were visited by Lutz Heck, who had become the head Nazi zookeeper and was therefore responsible for populating Germany’s zoos and for supplying the Nazis with exotic creatures to hunt. He sent back to Berlin the animals that interested him, then allowed his soldiers to slaughter what remained.

In the stories that we tell about the Holocaust, Nazi cruelty most often manifests toward humans. But the quest for racial purity comprised an entire worldview. As they conquered lands, Nazis waged ecological warfare by systematically replacing native flora and fauna with German plants and animals. Heck wanted to resurrect three prehistoric German animals by using eugenics, so he raided zoos throughout Europe for descendants of the forest tarpan (a type of horse), the aurochsen (a type of bull) and the forest bison. The best specimens of each type would be bred to bring out the pure characteristics. Ackerman’s recounting of such “zoophilia” holds the Nazis accountable for still another set of crimes.

To protect his clandestine work, Jan convinced the local Nazi government to repurpose the zoo — first as a pig farm, then as a fur farm. Though German soldiers lived nearby, the Underground Peasant Movement kept its “Guests,” as the Jews escaping from the Warsaw Ghetto were known, in the villa and tunnels that linked the various animal areas. Many pretended to be friends, servants or relatives; while careful, they all operated under the assumption that the more open they were, the less suspicious they would seem. The strategy worked: Of some 300 Jews to pass through the Zabinskis’ walls, only two did not survive the war.

Years later, after being recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, Jan explained their motivation: “I don’t understand all the fuss. If any creature is in danger, you save it, human or animal.” “The Zookeeper’s Wife” shows the necessity for such simple, yet all-too-rare beliefs.

Jessica Allen is a New York–based writer and editor.

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